Mars is Earth's next door neighbor in the solar system. We know a lot about the red planet thanks to several rovers that have taken beautiful photos and have done scientific research, but always by remote control. These days more and more people, from NASA to private industry are talking about humans going to Mars.
"One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," so said Neil Armstrong 47 years ago when he became the first human being to step foot on the moon. That was an impressive trip, and we did it multiple times. Surely we can go on to Mars.
Certainly the moon trip was astounding for its time, but consider the fact that the moon is some 239,000 miles from Earth. Mars, on the other hand, is about 140,000,000 miles away.
"Just do the simple, fundamental arithmetic. If we go the same speed we went to the moon, it'll take us 3,000 days to get to Mars," said Mike Rudolphi, a veteran of NASA's Shuttle Program, who is now a space flight consultant.
We traveled to the moon at some 20,000 miles an hour. The speed required for a manned Mars trip will need to be more than ten times faster. "We're still developing a propulsion system that can drive us fast, that can drive us faster," said Rudolphi.
Mars beckons, but a working propulsion system to get there is just one of many things that makes it a complex, difficult mission. For one thing, we have to use a launch window--a time when Mars is close enough to make the trip as short as possible, maybe nine months. There's a window in the 2040's that looks good, but the planning will require the first of 10 launches by NASA's Space Launch System, some five and a half years before humans use the launch window to begin their journey.
SLS won't be taking equipment to the International Space Station, which orbits at a pedestrian 350 miles from the Earth. The orbit point for the Mars mission would be more like 200,000 miles away.
Among the items carried by SLS, a "Space Tug" to ferry equipment from Earth orbit to Mars. Among the other items catching a ferry ride would be a surface habitat, which would actually require two SLS launches. A supply module would also need tug transport. The time-consuming complications are there for very good reasons.
"We've got to protect the people. The equipment has got to work. So it becomes an extremely intricate engineering function to make sure that all that works right, is manufactured right, tested right, and deployed right," said Mike Rudolphi.
Once again, the Mars crew wouldn't leave Earth for five and a half years after the first SLS launch. They would rendezvous with their transport vehicle and Mars lander in orbit. From there it would be a journey of nine months or more. A year would be spent on the surface of the planet, and then the long return trip home, which would be another nine months or more. That prolonged mission time leads to another set of complications.
"We're months, maybe years away from home, so we're going to have to have capability and equipment to treat someone who gets sick. Oh by the way, we're going to have to have the emotional stability to pull of that kind of mission," said Mike Rudolphi.
There are numerous other problems still to be solved before humans walk on Mars. At this point we don't have a way of shielding astronauts from radiation,and then there's the money. A mission to Mars could cost $150,000,000 or more.
Mike Rudolphi added another complication. "This will require all that we have in the private sector that is interested in Mars, the government's involvement, what NASA does, and other countries, and getting all those people to work together is going to be a real challenge. And if anyone of those fall down, it's going to jeopardize the program." said Rudolphi.
He said one other thing, too. He's optimistic that it will happen. What he doesn't have to say, it won't be easy.